An old friend and I were reminiscing about our youthful adventures and discoveries we'd made back then. He remembered things I had forgotten and vice versa. The time covered was from 1970 to 1980 when we went from our teens to our twenties. What was fascinating about it was the culture in those days and the routines we followed naturally.
The first thing I remember was the shortage of money. Paying nearly sixty per cent in combined taxes, I took home £62.00-a-week in my first full-time job. As against that though, my tiny Dublin bedsit cost £6.00-a-week, just ten per cent of what I had to put a roof over my head. Twenty cigarettes cost 25p, (or a quarter of a pound), and the pint of beer cost 25p also. With a company car under my ass, my transport was free. A Big Mac and fries was £1.00 and my weekly shopping basket came to about £7.00.
I remember working long hours but having plenty of free time also. In that seventies and eighties Ireland, free time meant meeting friends in the pub after work. The atmosphere of carefree fun was what we enjoyed so much. Anybody could say anything and nobody took offense. We spoke in jest and we laughed together. The beer simply fueled the light mood but deeper down, we were communicating with each other. It would have been miserable if we'd found ourselves in an empty pub with nothing to do but skull down the pints. Drinking for its own sake was and is pointless and self-defeating. The object was to loosen up not get drunk and stupid.
So the pub was the venue, the beer became the fuel and the whole point of the exercise was the chat. To my mind, that is the reason the pub was the institution it was. Ideas were exchanged, public speaking was learned with the help of hecklers and simple words strung out in well-formed sentences became an exchangeable currency. It formed opinions while also informing opinions. The infamous "craic" was the patter and hum of multiple conversations all over the place. Piped music was rare and television screens mostly blank, if they were there at all. We entertained ourselves and each other in those days without the many props around today.
What brought this to mind again was a letter to the Irish Examiner by a guy called Damien back in June. He developed an uneasy and lingering thought that many of us share and in deference to him, I re-publish it here fully.
Friday night pints a loss to our culture
Finian McGrath’s plea for leniency to smokers made me reflect on the pub scene prior to introduction of the smoking ban on February 29th 2004.
On a Friday around 5.30pm there were a number of us who regularly met up at a particular pub. It was no all-night session, just a couple of pints. It was our chance to unwind and to chat about the events of the week. There was also a great buzz among those present as the pub was normally fairly full.
After the ban something happened to the atmosphere, particularly as people were continually leaving the table to go outside for a smoke, and we all slowly stopped meeting on a Friday. Of course when the random breath testing arrived, we found ourselves not going out as much and mostly drinking at home. It is the conversation and the craic in the pub which has been lost.
Although I don’t agree with smoking in pubs or indeed drinking and driving, there is a part of the Irish culture that has gone forever, and sadly a part which I dearly miss.
Though vigorously denied by professional anti-smokers at the time, the smoking ban had an instant effect on Irish pubs. The ban came into effect on Monday, 29th March, 2004 from opening time onwards. On the following Monday I went to the Ashburton Bar and spoke with Gerry, the owner. He counted the weekly takings on Monday mornings and told me directly that they were down a whopping seventy per cent in a single week. Prior to that over a twenty year period, his takings varied by plus or minus five per cent with predictable regularity. The story was the same at my other local the Cotton Ball with takings down by a half. It was devastating for the pub trade and no-one saw it coming. At that time in this country, our drink-driving laws were strict in principle but not in practice. The breath test was not in evidence and instead, if stopped, the Garda used his common sense to determine if you were fit to drive. About two pints was the legal limit but three or four were tolerated as long as you weren't acting the fool in the car. A couple of years after the ban these laws were strengthened. This action saw the end of the after-work pint and was another nail in the coffin of free association and communication. The culture wasn't changing as much as being forcibly changed through the blunt use of legislation.
The dictionary definition of drunk is, "Affected by alcohol to the extent of losing control of one's faculties or behavior." We all understand drunk in its extremes and agree it is not an attractive proposition. But as I have stated here before, the effects of alcohol are gradual. There are pleasant stages to be reached long before becoming technically drunk, as per the definition of the word. Each stage could have its own name and designation. At present, you are technically drunk after a single glass of wine or one pint but factually, you are most certainly not drunk at all. Tolerances vary from person to person but I have never known anybody in my life to be drunk after one drink. Chatty? yes! loose? certainly! but having lost control of their faculties or behavior, definitely not. The average person is not even tipsy after one. In the real world even the tee-totaler would need a few to begin slurring their words.
What always concerns me is that laws are supposed to there to protect us, not inhibit our freedoms but more and more we are seeing laws drafted that will have little effect on our safety but a huge effect on our ability to do what we enjoy. I tend to characterise these as bad laws. For a law to mean anything it should be beneficial and have majority support. By that I mean real support and not politically correct platitudes or the loud voices of vested interests who welcome the law. Before the smoking ban if the Government had been honest and polled its citizens with the question, "Do you want to see one pub a day closing in Ireland?" they would have gotten a flat no to that idea. Since then though a third of the pubs in Ireland were just stubbed out by bad laws that were unnecessary and unwanted. The pubs across the country could have easily facilitated both smokers and non-smokers but there were not allowed to do so. Sold to us as a measure to make barmen safe it had the effect of putting a third of them out of a job and another third on reduced hours. How's that for health and safety?
The tighter clamp down on drink driving and the lowering of the limit all but killed the rural pub and that was the one place that needed it as a social centre. Defenders of that law point to the drop in deaths on the roads since then and while I acknowledge that it must have had some effect, there were other factors at work. In the ten years the new limits were invoked, the motor car itself has become much safer and the roads have been drastically improved. Speed limits too have been vigorously enforced and the fines increased and penalty points have been introduced also. The drop in collisions is not all down to dink driving laws by any means but the pub and a way of life were definite casualties.
We simply do not communicate like we used to do and as a result, there is a whole generation coming up who struggle to make a viable sentence, never mind conveying an actual idea in verbal format. It's not the absence of the great story tellers I bemoan here but the incredible difficulty today when negotiating the most simple of situations due to an almost unbelievable lack of comprehension. If your easiest of queries does not have an FAQ page accompanying it then you might lose the will to live as you re-word your query several times. You see, people are not used to listening either and the enforced loneliness associated with drinking at home with a cigarette in hand is not conducive to being a communicator of any kind.
Does Public Health ever consider mental health I wonder?